These Mean Streets

mean streets

These Mean Streets

It’s dark. It’s early. It’s Monday.

And my new “medicine” didn’t keep me from a sleepless night.

Still, I am cabbie. And this is San Francisco. There are paratransits, dregs and (yyyaaawwwnn) suits all in need of transport across this great city. (And a landlord in wait of rent.)

I shall persevere!

5:15am:
Stumbling in through the lot of ‘ol Citizen’s Cab, I’m headed towards Kojak in the office. However, en route, I spot a grey Nissan Altima over by the hose sporting a suction-cupped smartphone and tell tale “U” sign adhered inside of its windshield. There’s an older black man with a SF Giants baseball hat – with the price tag still dangling on the brim – washing down the tax… er, his car.

Hey! It’s Crooks! (Sometimes taxi driver, sometimes Uber scab.)

“Hey, Crooks! Can’t you read? That sign behind you says it’s a $50 fine for washing personal vehicles! We’re in a drought ya know! How’d you turn on the hose, anyway? Ivan’s been having it shut off at night, until the mechanics come in!”

A guilty grin overcomes Crooks.

“Nothin’ ta see here, man! Move along… I mean, I dunno how tha hose coulda got turnt on ‘r nuthin’,” Crooks shoots back all wry.

Crooks is an old school taxi driver. He’s been driving for various color schemes for decades now. Well, when not losing his A-card for months at a time (and dodging federal prison) after holding on to disabled riders’ Paratransit cards for the purpose of charging fraudulent trips. Or getting written out of a given company’s commercial insurance policy for one too many serious wrecks, due to excessive speed and running red lights. (Hence, Crooks’ recent work driving for Uber .)

“Hey Crooks! What’s with the price tag on your hat? You think you’re Minnie Pearl or something?”

But the reference just goes over Crooks’ head. He replies with a simple dumbfounded, “Huh??”

Persevering Cabbie, taking another shot, “And what’s with the grey Altima? Last time I saw you on the road you had a black Camry…”

Crooks’ guilty smile turns to defeat.

“Yeah, wrecked it. Drivin’ my wife’s car now.”

Well, Crooks does treat city streets like a warm up for his next life driving in the demolition derby circuit. And, jeez. I wonder how the conversation of borrowing his wife’s car went!

With my razzing complete, I move on to see Koj back in the office for 137’s key and medallion.
6:15am:
I am caffeinated, purged and with napkins. (Thanks, Starbucks.)

As I breach the majesty of the pre-dawn Fillmore/Broadway crest, I am bathed in Rachmaninoff’s Moment Musical No. 1 as it wafts throughout the cab, compliments of San Francisco’s only classical station – KDFC, 90.3FM. This soothing piano sets the stage beautifully for what is a clear and quiet morning in the City by the Bay. Its deft minor notes frame all ethereal the twinkling lights of the International Orange-illuminated Golden Gate Bridge. And just as a monolithic tanker ship moves silently beneath her deck, seemingly propelled by the deep, sustained croak of a single fog horn.

It should be emphasized that San Francisco is a winner of global warming. (Well, drought aside.) Every day has been beautiful, clear and warm – but for a promised El Niño that has thus far been all of one three-hour rain. Some tourists recently got a real treat on the docks of Alcatraz, too, as they bore witness to a Great White feasting on a seal. This was the first such sighting of a Great White predation inside of the Bay in modern San Francisco history. The warmer waters of late have been host to an influx of sharks and other marine life that have never been spotted this far north. (Surfers beware!)

 

9:15am:
“Cha-ching! 607 Page. iPhone. Gordon.”

My Cabulous phone lights up with an order. I’m rolling the Lower Haight just around the corner. And I ‘Accept’.

I pull up to 607 page lickety-split and hit the green ‘Arrived” button to alert my passenger. And in short order, out comes Gordon.

In casual clothing – jeans and an Izod, and with casual demeanor, Gordon smiles warmly and offers up his destination as 420 Montgomery Street.

We drive.

And almost immediately, Gordon has taken note of the placard ad I have hawking my book that’s covering the obnoxious back seat streaming ad LCD screen.

“Ha! You’re a ‘non-practicing Buddhist’! What sect are you non-practicing?? I LOVE it! Ha!”

Non-practicing Cabbie addresses, “Well, I’m partial to not practicing Tibetan Buddhism. And I have a deep stand-offish reverence for Zen. But mainly it’s about my laziness in working on non-attachment and the letting go of my passions. Besides, I really don’t feel any religious organization has successfully navigated the dogmatic traps and group-think inherent in being, well… an organization.

A bright and jovial Gordon gushes, “That’s WONDERFUL! I am an ordained priest at the San Francisco Zen Center. I do know what you mean. There are many traps for the ego!”

We make eye contact via the rear view. And I get that “special glow” from this man.

Non-practicing Cabbie expounds, “Yeah, anyway. It’s not about WHAT YOU DO, I have learned. It’s about WITH WHAT ATTITUDE you do it. Karma. The seed of the impetus that is put in is what you get out. This reminds me of a Ram Dass story I read about, when he was sitting for weeks with a Koan and was just about at the end of his rope. Each time he exited the small dark meditation room to answer the Koan for the Roshi, he would get rejected and sent back to sit and contemplate the answer for several more days. After some weeks, and a whole lot of joint pain, he was angry as he was asked, for the last time, the answer by the Roshi. I forget what the Koan was, ‘the sound of one hand clapping’ or whatever. But no matter, when Ram Dass answered that last time, he gritted his teeth, ignored the Koan and replied simply in anger, ‘Good morning, Roshi.’ Apparently this was a good answer, as the Roshi bellowed in laughter and said, ‘Finally! You are becoming a student of Zen!'”

Non-practicing Cabbie, “Do you know Ram Dass?”

Rinzai Gordon, “Oh, I read Be Here Now back in the 70’s. But I never met Ram Dass. I suspect as a cab driver though, you are practicing the Way more than you are letting on.”

Maybe-practicing Cabbie, testing, “Maybe… Hey! I’ve got one for you! Back in the day, I crashed Robert Thurman class on Buddhism he was teaching back at Columbia University in New York. I was pretty spiritually high at the time and took exception to him treating the Eight Fold Path as if it were dogma, like the Ten Commandments. Being mindful of Padmasambhava and a couple other Buddhist parables that ended in death, I asked professor Thurman if the Buddha could have killed. Well, he got pretty mad at the question and was not having it. So, I have a Zen parable I’d like to know your thoughts on…

Once upon a time, there was a student Samurai. And the student’s master had been killed by a very powerful, evil Samurai that the student’s master had once studied alongside of. Well, the Samurai code had it so that it was now the student’s obligation to avenge his master’s death. So, the student spent years seeking out the evil Samurai that had slain his master. And one day, he did catch up to the evil Samurai. The student fought bravely until the evil Samurai was cornered, and removed of his sword. Per his duty, the student Samurai raised his sword high in the air and was just about to strike his opponent dead, when the evil Samurai suddenly spat in the student’s face. And with that, the student lowered his sword… and he walked away.”

With the story complete, I crane to look at a contemplative Gordon in the rear view.

And I ask, “Why did the student not kill the evil Samurai?”

Contemplative Gordon, “Wow! I do not know. Why?”

Maybe-practicing Cabbie, “Because when the evil Samurai spat in his face, it made the student angry. Had the pupil killed the evil Samurai at that point, it would not have been out of a passionless duty. It would have been out of ego, and Karma-inducing. It would have flown in the face of all that his master had taught him!”

Gordon, “Wow! I LOVE it! Hey! This is me up on the left. Wells Fargo.”

Stunned Cabbie, “Wha?? You work at Wells Fargo?! What about the Eight Fold Path teaching of right livelihood??”

Gordon, in stride, “Yes, I’m a financial analyst for Wells Fargo. I do my job mindfully and feel a calling to it. We’ll see what the future holds. But for now, this is where I am.”

Doh! Here I am judging. Hypocritically, I have not concerned myself with “what attitude” my beaming passenger might execute his duties. I have focused solely on where his duties reside. Hmm. Guess I should just stick with the “non-practicing” moniker.

We exchange warm, knowing eye contact, as Gordon exits 137 and heads out into the thick hustle of the deep Financial. I plug the $11.55 fare into my Cabulous phone. And with a “Cha-ching!”, I roll.

 

11:15am:
I’m pulling up to a Citizen’s Cab dispatch proper, in the well-off Marina District. It’s a regular I’ve driven to jury duty before. An older black woman who gave me an earful back when, regarding the evils of civic duty.

At 2425 Francisco, I find Lacena waiting out in front in the driveway of her large condo complex reading a large book. She marks her page and gets in back.

Lacena, “Thank you for your promptness, driver. I’m heading to a medical appointment at 450 Sutter. Do you know the building?”

Driver, “Yes, ma’am. I know it well. Well, from the outside!”

(Laughs.)

And Lacena dives right in, “What do you think about the state of politics? It makes me sick. All this Black Lives Matter crap. Pull up your pants for God’s sake and get a job! I know I’m black, but Obama is ruining this country! I’m STILL waiting for the birth certificate! My husband and I go to parties with well-to-do white people, smoking cigars and drinking brandy. And when we enter a conversation, it is assumed that we are Democrats. The group will get silent. But then I tell them how we have a house full of guns and how we are proud members of the NRA, and then they all relax. I mean, who does that Michele think she is! Telling us what to eat! I’ll eat freedom fries all I want! Whew! It’s so nice to know I’m in a real taxi and have a sympathetic ear.”

Uh-huh.

We ride the next few minutes with me nodding along to the wonders of Ben Carson and Donald Trump, and how they’re going to fix immigration and bring jobs with Reagan’s trickle-up policies. How Lacena and her doctor husband EARNED their money, with no help from no one. How regulation and Obama’s socialist tax policies are really fascism in disguise. Our new reality; Nazi Amerika.

Lacena’s rant reminds of another black Republican woman running for office down in conservative Orange County, who was flabbergasted to realize during the race that her party was (Gasp) racist! This, after her white opponent sent out flyers in the contested district depicting the black GOP’er as Aunt Jemima eating watermelon and fried chicken.

At least Lacena tips well, and pays cash. We part at her golden facade, ornate medical office building down in the thick of Union Square with yours truly $20 richer. And Sympathetic Cabbie shouts after Lacena with an encouraging, “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!

 

1:35pm:
“Cha-ching! – 66 Albion. Nancy. iPhone.”

Yeah, I ‘Accept’. For I am “bingo” on the order – right at Albion and Valencia, here in the Mission.

And a very skinny, heavily tattooed and body-pierced Nancy pops in back with short cropped pink hair, huge gold hoop earrings and huge round sunglasses. The Lauper-esque presentation is contrasted by black skinny jeans and a black wife beater. Nancy directs through glowing skin, perfect teeth and a dirty rasp.

“Fuckin’ thanks fer gettin me! I’m goin’ to the Palms. Actually, a restaurant near the Palms, down in SOMA. You know where the fuckin’ Palms is?”

It’s interesting how one gets the impression that some people simply curse for the sake of attempting to relate to the “blue collar cabbie”.

Blue Collar Cabbie, “Hell fuckin’ yeah, I know where the damn Palms is! This ain’t no fuckin’ Uber you’re in!”

Well, THAT ought to appease Nancy…

Nancy, “Fuck an A! I ain’t NEVER gettin’ in an Uber again! I only take REAL cabs! I’m a native San Franciscan. Third generation! And we don’t play that shit!! Hell! The last time I was in a Uber, it was one of those UberPools where you share your ride. Dude offered me a bottled water. Said it was in the pouch on the back of his seat. But there WAS NO water! I told dude. But when we picked up the next person, he offers her a water from the back of his seat! Like he was some kind of machine or somethin’! Maaan, and those guys can’t find their head in their ass drivin’ ’round the city! They always rely on their GPS, which is totally wrong! And they NEVER consider construction! Shit! They always take me down fuckin’ Folsom at rush hour when I’m goin’ to my bartender job . FUCKIN’ FOLSOM!! I tell ’em, ‘NO! Go down Bryant!’ But do they listen?? NO!! Fuck those fuckin’ guys. I know this city too well to be dealin’ with THAT crap! That’s why I only take REAL cabs… Yeah, so I’m meetin’ a friend down at this restaurant, Marlowe’s, near the Palms. You know it?”

Blue Collar Cabbie, “Fuck yeah! GREAT food!”

Nancy, “Good! I’m meetin’ this guy who’s a regular at my bar. He’s teaching me to play golf. Didn’t think I’d take him up on it. He didn’t think I was serious. But I’m fuckin’ like DAMN serious! I really want to learn how to play. I jus’ had to take Fluffy out for her morning walk first. Ain’t headin’ NOWHERE ’til she’s squeezed one out!”

Nancy, continuing, “Yeah, I only take REAL cabs. I take ’em to work at my bartender job. Been bartending for over twenty years! I know I don’t look that old. But I’m half Asian. Sometimes though, even with the pro drivers, it’s 50/50… if you get some misogynous Middle Eastern fuckin’ bastard. It’s always the Middle Easterners! MISOGYNOUS FUCKERS! But at least they’re insured… Not like the scab Ubers and Lyfts. SHIT!! I got a friend who was in cab and they got T-boned by a drunk driver. Smashed the cab right into a wall and had my friend stuck in there, all wedged! DUDE! Her breast implants exploded INSIDE OF HER in the collision! BOTH of her BUTT IMPLANTS, TOO!! Bitch couldn’t walk for over a year! But at least she got paid. You KNOW she woulda been fucked out of insurance if it had happened in one of those ‘rideshares’!”

Blue Collar Cabbie, “Wow! You really DON’T look that fuckin’ old! Wait… Wha?? BUTT IMPLANTS?! EXPLODE?!”

We pull up on Nancy’s quaint restaurant, where I presume she’ll stow the sailor’s mouth. And I plug the $12.85 fare into my Cabulous phone as Nancy exits 137. She then turns to lean back in the open door of my taxi, with an afterthought.

“Hey! I like you! Lemme get ur number! I’ll call you for my fuckin’ rides!”

Blue Collar Cabbie, “Uh… Er… Sorry, I like to keep things open. I don’t really give out my number. Or have a clientele.”

A confused and seemingly dejected Nancy, mumbles, trying to save face.

“Well, whatever. I jus’ thought I’d call you directly when I needed a fuckin’ ride. I know those Cabulous people take a 13% bite out of you. But, ok. Nice to meet you!”

It was a pleasure to meet you too, Nancy.
The day rolls on…

 

I actually stay out late today, and milk in full my 4:15 medallion time. Ivan the manager had noticed recently how often I was coming in early and has begun sweating me to give up 137 for an earlier cab. I don’t think even my friend (co-manager) Jesus could call him off. The pressure is probably all for the best, though. I do need to make money. And today, it looks like I did! I’ll be walking with around $205! (Not bad in these times.)

4:12pm:
I’m pulling into the Citizen’s Cab lot. And sure enough, there’s Ivan walking round shooting the shit and shaking hands with all the drivers hovering around at shift change. As usual, Ivan’s asking how all are doing. And assuring that Citizen’s Cab is faring well.

I yell over to Ivan, interrupting his conversation with another Russian; a medallion holder who is complaining that he’s been short-tanked, yet again, by his day driver.

“Ivan! Hey, Ivan!! What time do you have???”

Ivan looks down at his wrist watch, as looking baffled as to why I would be interrupting him with such an inane question – in light of the clock on the wall of the garage, the clock in my cab, and the one on the cell phone that I undoubtedly have on my person.

Ivan starts to yell back an answer, “Four-Thirt…” before catching the diabolical grin on my face, and realizing the razz. Ivan does not finish answering. He turns back to assuage his fellow Russian, denying the short tank.

He returns to the heat of battle.

 


Photo by Christian Lewis

Stuff THIS in yer stocking! San Francisco TAXI: Life in the Merge Lane… (Book 2) out now!

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Alex Sack

Alex Sack, born 1970, is a taxi driver who grew up in the Washington D.C. suburbs of Maryland. He attended several different colleges and universities around the D.C./Baltimore region as a music major for 4 & 1/2 years before quitting - pre-diploma - to the horror of his father. He tried his hand as a professional musician/songwriter seeing him through travels domiciled in New York City’s East Village, Los Angeles (where he scored a few songs on The Disney Channel's 'Even Stevens') and San Francisco - where he's ultimately put down roots. Alex is a single dad to two boys, currently ages 14 and (a hormonal) 16. His post-natal fallback occupation as Operations Assistant at a start-up clean-tech engineering consultancy came to a sudden end with the one-two punch of the owner’s fatal skiing accident in Tahoe and the subsequent downturn in the economy.This - and an acquired nervous twitch to cubicle work - has led to his latest job...

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